Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Martin Luther King, Jr.
by Rebecca Price Janney

In mid-January Americans take a day off to celebrate the life and accomplishments of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the most acclaimed Civil Rights leader of the 20th century.  How did he rise to such a place of prominence, however?  It all began 60 years ago in the city of Montgomery, Alabama.  In his book, Stride Toward Freedom, King recalled:

One day after finishing school, I was called to a little church, down in Montgomery, Alabama.  And I started preaching there.  Things were going well in that church, it was a marvelous experience.  But one day a year later, a lady by the name of Rosa Parks decided that she wasn’t going to take it any longer.  .  .  .  It was the beginning of a movement. 
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in Brown vs. The Board of Education that public school segregation was unconstitutional.  Blacks throughout the South anticipated a new day as the legally recognized equals of whites.  It quickly became obvious, however, that segregation still needed to be challenged on other levels.

Rosa Parks
On Thursday, December 1, 1955 a 42 year-old seamstress named Rosa Parks, weary from a long day of work behind a commercial steam press, refused to give up her seat to a white man on a public bus.  She had taken a place past the first ten rows, which were reserved for white passengers.  When that section filled and a white man boarded, the bus driver told the black riders to move even further back so that white man didn’t have to sit so close to them.  At first no one moved.

“You all better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats,” the driver commanded. 

With the rolling of eyes and shuffling of feet, three blacks abandoned their seats, not wanting any trouble.  Only Rosa Parks sat still.  The driver threatened to have her arrested, and she answered calmly, “Go ahead, you may do that.” 
Rosa Parks is arrested

In response to her bravery, Montgomery’s black clergy took immediate action.  Led by Dexter Avenue Baptist Church’s new pastor, Martin Luther King, Jr., a strike against the bus company was announced on December 5 under the auspices of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA).  Parks commented in her 1992 book, ‘‘The advantage of having Dr. King as president was that he was so new to Montgomery and to civil rights work that he hadn’t been there long enough to make any strong friends or enemies.’’  (Parks and Haskins, Rosa Parks)  At first, the organization called for a modest change in the situation, that blacks and whites be seated on a “first come, first served” basis, with blacks filling the back of the buses first.  They also requested that the bus company hire black drivers and treat passengers of color courteously.  The owners refused to budge. 

Year of the Bus Boycott

During that next harrowing year in Montgomery, ridership on the buses went down by roughly 90% as blacks stayed off the nearly empty vehicles, crippling the white-owned company financially.  Blacks paid a high price as well.  The Ku Klux Klan bombed King’s house, after which he told a crowd that gathered, ‘‘Be calm as I and my family are. We are not hurt and remember that if anything happens to me, there will be others to take my place.’’  In addition, black motorists, particularly in carpools, faced ongoing harassment for the most trivial—and fabricated—traffic violations.  Black women who worked as domestic servants walked hundreds of miles that year to their work and back because of their firm conviction that segregation must end for themselves and future generations. Both Rosa Parks and her husband Raymond lost their jobs because of their involvement in the boycott. 
The community drew together
The bus strike lasted 382 grueling, difficult days, until December 20, 1956 when the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation on the buses was unconstitutional.  That is how the nation got a new hero in Martin Luther King, Jr., whose leadership in the cause for Civil Rights lasted until his death in 1968.
The strike comes to an end

Do you have any personal connection to this event or the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s? 



After her book, Great Women in American History was first published in the late 1990s, Rebecca Price Janney had an opportunity to meet Rosa Parks at a Philadelphia Black Clergy event.  She presented Mrs. Parks with a copy of the book, opened to the photograph about the civil rights icon.  The elderly Mrs. Parks looked at it for a few seconds then told Rebecca, “I was much younger then.”  It was a highlight of Rebecca’s life as a historian and author.  For more information visit


  1. I personally have no connection to this event but I do remember by grandmother mentioning many brought knives to school when they began busing students.

  2. That was a tense time for those students.

  3. I was in Junior High school in the 1960s in E. St. Louis, Illinois, and have many memories of those very tense times. I also have great memories of my African American science teacher on whom I had a massive crush. I have often wondered at how difficult it must have been for Mr. J. to navigate the world I grew up in. Over the years, I've become increasingly aware of how much easier my life was in the 1960s simply because I was born with pale skin. I don't know of any uglier evidence of man's sinful nature than racial prejudice, although in our day we see a new hideous evidence of it. I knew racial tension and violence as a junior high student, but the word "terrorism" wasn't part of my daily vocabulary.Thank you for the reminder of the brave men and women of the 1960s.

    1. What a thoughtful response, Stephanie! You had some deep early experiences regarding racial relations. It sounds as if your teacher was a pioneer as well.

  4. I had no personal involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. My new husband and I were stationed in Colorado at the time, busy with having babies ... ignorant and naive at what was going on in the South. Just heard about it on the news. However, I enjoyed the post, and learned something I had missed somehow previously. I knew of Rosa Parks's courage in standing up to the bus driver, but I'd always thought Dr. King had inspired her to do that. But evidently it was the other way around. Just goes to show what one person can accomplish when one has the courage to stand firm in the face of evil. Thanks for sharing.

  5. I'm glad to have clarified that matter. Rosa Parks was very brave, and MLK looked up to her. We're fortunate to have such amazing people in our nation's history.

  6. Very interesting to read the details of the start of the Civil Rights Movement and Rosa Parks, a. Very brave lady! Sm wileygreen 1(at)yahoo(dot)com

  7. Thanks, Sharon. I know she's one of my heroes.